The Lone Ranger

Fifteen years ago, screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio contributed to the screenplay for a big Hollywood swashbuckler set in the Old West. At that screenplay’s fore was the relationship between an old master with a deeply personal connection to a long ago injustice and the incompetent but brave man who can make vengeance possible by learning the ways of vigilante justice, by standing for the oppressed while riding his trusty steed behind a black mask. That screenplay became the well-received, fondly remembered Antonio Banderas vehicle The Mask of Zorro, a film that clearly adored its source material, those old radio serials and black-and-white television episodes about a masked man bringing justice to the chaotic and corrupt West. But it also wanted to bring a touch of that Raiders of the Lost Ark spirit to the proceedings, allowing some tongue-in-cheek humor, humanizing fallibility, and modern Hollywood pacing to spice up all that old-fashioned derring-do.

Zorro isn’t perfect, but it’s entertaining as hell– sexy (that swordfight in the barn, ay!) yet old-fashioned, melodramatic yet briskly-paced, able to laugh at itself but also respectful of the suffering of its minority characters. Some of that can be attributed to the incredible stunt-work and a great cast and score, but a lot of that credit goes to Rossio and Elliot; these two men, who also co-wrote the Pirates films and the first Shrek, have cornered the market on putting fresh, cheeky spins on old, dying genres: the pirate film, the fairy tale, and, yes, the masked vigilante film. (People seem to forget that, when Zorro came out, masked vigilantism wasn’t exactly burning up the big screen; the same year that Zorro was released, Batman and Robin seemingly killed the prospects of the superhero film for decades to come; in my opinion, Zorro was as much a part of making the X-Men and Spiderman films possible as Blade was.)

Zorro started all that. Perhaps in tribute, fifteen years later, Elliot and Rossio have co-written pretty much the same film. They’ve just pulled in a different pulp hero. In the intervening years, I think it is safe to say they’ve lost some of their touch.

I went into The Lone Ranger having read a lot of criticism of the film that lamented its tone, its length, and its poor quality. That’s not good, but like all of you, bad criticism isn’t a dealbreaker for me. I also hated the trailers. Still not a good sign, but the trailers did tell me one thing: I knew there was a chance that with this team, and this approach (hip-to-be-square take on dying genre), I might get something akin to The Mask of Zorro. And I was right: The Lone Ranger is exactly like The Mask of Zorro! If The Mask of Zorro were made with utter contempt for the genre in which the original pulp stories were told… And if Johnny Depp kept running across the screen in facepaint and ruining the remotely condonable parts of the movie.

The Lone Ranger is a deeply offensive film, and the offense has very little to do with racism, though that has been a much discussed facet of the beating it has taken. I will not argue with any Native American (or any human) who finds something wrong with this film’s take on the most prominent Native American character (who is not also a sexy werewolf) that Hollywood has seen in decades, though I think it’s fair to grant Rossio and Elliot this: their film does a fair job of showing that this Tonto guy, feeding his dead crow and nattering on about a spirit horse in broken English, is not crazy and colorful because he’s Native American but because he is a tragically broken man. (Though The Lone Ranger, in one of its few salient points, argues the two may be one in the same. That’s one thing you can say about the approach here – it subverts and humorizes genocide in the most insane, unkosher ways, but it doesn’t sugarcoat!) What should be more offensive, not just to Native Americans, but to everyone who likes movies and humanity and justice for underrepresented minorities, is that the most prominent Native American character in decades has to be promoted to the world in a film that is this astoundingly bad. And to add insult to injury, that character isn’t the noble center of an otherwise messy movie; the agent of chaos, the catalyst that causes the beaker to explode, the worm at the center of the apple, is Tonto himself.

Just as all the credit for the success of Zorro and Shrek and the first two Pirates films cannot go solely to Rossio and Elliot, the abject failure of the last two Pirates films (critically) and especially The Lone Ranger (in every conceivable way) cannot be blamed solely on the guys with the typewriters. Along the way, Rossio and Elliot have added director Gore Verbinski and movie star Johnny Depp to their posse… or more accurately, Rossio and Elliot have been conscripted into Depp’s outlaw gang as unwitting accomplices. Depp begged to make this film a reality – begged to have the representational Native American issues placed upon his shoulders, begged to retell the old myth with a new twist – and with the captain goes his ship. Depp made this film possible, and he makes its ruination a certainty.

Based on all this would you believe I liked and admired the first half hour of this film? Would you believe that, before Tonto and Silver team up to “bring John Reid back from the dead,” bringing with them the sozzled, off-kilter spirit of Captain Jack Sparrow, without any of the fun, mystery, or adventure that character surprised us with, I was enjoying the introduction of this cast of careworn Western tropes?

What I was seeing was a deeply square movie, in the way that The Mummy films are square but also kind of cool. This film had a referential respect for the history of the Western genre and an emotional narrative, told with care and diligence. What broke my heart was, the film knows it’s playing it mostly straight at his point, finding its center of gravity in the stoic Texas Ranger played by James Badge Dale. It consciously wants to be a classic Western up to this point so that, when the classic Western hero dies (and gets his heart eaten!), the classic Western will die with him, from its ashes rising a revisionist comedy with the kooky Indian sidekick as the secret protagonist, and the Ranger’s sissy brother as the stooge in a mask. There is a conscious decision to make a gold old-fashioned Western and then, in order to send a message, to just… stop doing that. A bad buddy comedy in a cowboy hat ensues.These two guys make with the banter, telling a whorehouse madam they’ll have to shut her down because of “health code violations.” A magic horse prances in a tree after an entire tribe of Comanche is massacred, and Tonto, fresh off mourning his people (not days but seconds later), gets a punchline. A bad punchline! The Lone Ranger gets his head dragged through a pile of horse excrement. That about sums up how this movie feels about the narrative of the traditional Western hero.

And the trope deserves some criticism, of course. It is tied the oppression of an entire repressed and disenfranchised minority in the same way that so many pieces of pop culture ephemera from our past (and admit it, our present) are. It’s not the message that I abhor. It’s the approach. Depp’s take on empowering the Native American in the Western narrative features all the balletic grace of a hippo in a tutu. And not the hippo from Fantasia. A real hippo.

The main mantra of this film is “Wrong Brother.” The film even retrofits the definition of kemosabe to mean “wrong brother.” And this credo is repeated over and over again throughout the film. “It shouldn’t have been you John Reid,” everyone seems to say, disappointed that the shrieking lawyer is riding around meting out justice, “it should have been your brother.” By the end of the film of course, everyone tells John that it’s okay, he did just fine, but it’s not true. “Wrong Brother” couldn’t be a truer way of expressing what makes this the worst film of the year so far.

Based on twenty minutes of this film alone, I will watch Badge Dale as the trusty sheriff in every Western from here to eternity if given the opportunity. Hollywood, make it so! It’s not that Armie Hammer is insufficient filling his shoes; the film doesn’t even try to make the argument he comes close. This is a film about the square white man needing to unlearn his selfish, massacring whiteness. Badge Dale, who, in his short time on the screen, makes the hero (not the anti-hero but the hero) seem relevant again, could never have fit into this film’s agenda, and that’s a pity. The film seems to think so too.

Depp’s Tonto wants so desperately to see what James Badge Dale’s character would have done behind the mask that it becomes a self-fulfilling wish: even if we’re not thinking about it consciously, we kind of do too. It’s one of the few times where the main character in a film doesn’t want to be watching this version of his story any more than you do.

World War Z

Unless you read as much movie news as I do (and I read a lot of movie news… too much movie news…) you are probably blissfully unaware of World War Z’s extremely rocky road to becoming a complete film that people could go see in a theater and stuff.

In short, Brad Pitt read a great novel by Max Brooks back in 2006, and wanted very much to turn that novel into a smart, gore-free zombie film that he’d be proud to take his kids to! Which was a foolhardy mission, as anyone who has read and enjoyed World War Z – enthralling, expansive, and completely unadaptable – can tell you.

That was over a half-decade ago; countless rewrites and feuds, and a whopping $200 million later, I don’t know whether Brad Pitt feels he achieved his goals – naming this movie World War Z is tantamount to a bald-faced lie considering how little the film adapts from the book (nothing…), and it’s not exactly something I’d run out to see with a brood of impressionable young tykes in spite of its PG-13 rating. But Pitt can take satisfaction in knowing this: watching the finished product, there is no way to know that World War Z was an overbloated disaster waiting to happen. This is a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, pieced together out of pieces of pretty much every screenwriters’ idea for a big zombie movie, held together with duct tape; but dammit if the corpse itself isn’t beautiful to behold.

So why open this positive review with a tale of cinematic woe if it all has absolutely no bearing on what you can see in theaters today? I tell you about this film’s extraordinarily troubled production not to lord my trivial movie knowledge over you, but to emphasize just how big a wall this movie had to climb in order to enter into the warm embrace of my love, let alone avoid the withering disdain of my eye roll. I admit openly to being poisoned by this film’s dreadful adventure through the marketing grist-mill. I’ve never been more ready to despise a film. So let it stand as a testament to World War Z that, in spite of my marketing contamination, I didn’t just not dislike this film upon seeing the finished product; I adored it.

World War Z, a tightly wound thriller that had me on the edge of my seat and my mouth dry from Philadelphia all the way to Wales, is my platonic ideal of a zombie film – rather than a claustrophobic last stand in a mall, choked with sobs for poor Jenny who’s a zombie now, what Pitt and director Marc Forster give us is a big, world-spanning zombie epic with tremendous tension built across all its set-pieces, none of which require close quarters to be effective. That is until that killer third act maze at the World Health Organization, which was a late addition by my boys Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard. They swooped in and scrapped the ending of this film that was initially shot, which would have featured Pitt’s character being conscripted for years into the Russian army, only being set free once he won the battle of Moscow by freezing the zombies out (so very Russian)… and then discovering that his wife was sleeping with Matthew Fox now. Bummer… In contrast, the version of World War Z we got probably ends on too hopeful a note (the book ends on a hopeful note too, but it feels earned), but, by the end of the film, when Pitt says, in voiceover, “This isn’t the end,” I was whispering “Amen brother.”

A film I had planned to hate (that a lot of people had planned to hate) slayed at the box office, deservedly, practically guaranteeing a sequel, which I will be the first one in line to see. Ultimately, who cares that Pitt and Forster fought endlessly and bitterly to get World War Z to the point where we could talk about its triumph rather than its travails? Who cares that they spent $200 million dollars of Paramount’s money? It wasn’t my money, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about my ten dollars that I laid on the line hoping for a smart, taut zombie thriller. Best ten dollars I spent on summer spectacle all darn year.

A

Man of Steel

Much of the criticism surrounding Man of Steel – and there have been torrents of criticism, resisted valiantly by small pockets of praise from those who believe this is the Superman movie we’ve all been waiting for (a testimonial I would have agreed with based on the evocative trailers alone, but then I actually saw the movie…) – has centered on the film’s smash-bang-crack-boom last act. And that grand guignol of crumbling buildings and 9/11-reminiscent ash, which ends with Superman committing his one cardinal sin (though that part doesn’t bug me that much since screenwriters Nolan and Goyer never go out of their way to make that a “thing” for their version of Superman), deserves its own special circle in superhero cinema hell.

But my criticism can not be reserved solely for “The Super-Sad Metropolis Death Hour,” because by that point in Man of Steel, the film had already been tainted by a nomadic, homeless first act that should have involved epic, planet-spanning stakes-setting, but managed to bore me immeasurably instead. Zach Snyder’s vision of Krypton looked cool – everything Snyder does looks cool – from what I could see through my fluttering eyelids. All that stilted talk of a Codex and a genesis chamber and a phantom zone and of arcane Kryptonian custom regarding the criminal justice system couldn’t be saved by a neat-looking bird thing — it all drowns out any possible nobility Jor-El’s last stand could have held. It’s telling that Jor-El, in life a stoic, species-saving martyr, the perfect audience-identification character, is much more sympathetic after his death when he is nothing more than an all-knowing CPU that helps Superman and Lois Lane get to the next level when battling their way through General Zod’s Halo level of an evil plan.

Speaking of Ms. Lane, she shares virtually no chemistry with Superman, with whom she does share a pointless, unearned kiss at the film’s climax, prompting more shrugs than chills or whoos. Which isn’t the beautiful Cavill’s fault (he makes a fine, upstanding Superman) but the script’s – what is so wrong with the classic Lois-Superman-Clark love triangle this film ties itself in knots to avoid, to the point where it offers the ageless love affair between the two up to the audience without explanation or rationale as some cosmic inevitability rather than an actual attraction between two sentient beings? When that dynamic works, as it does between Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve in the Richard Donner films, it works in spite of it’s inherent silliness; and it can work like gangbusters when committed to. The moment in the original Superman where Clark considers revealing his identity to Lois and his whole being inflates to god-like proportions only to deflate like a month-old balloon when she walks back in the room, is one of my favorite in all of cinema. Ever. And that is saying nothing of the rooftop scene which precedes it, and is perfect. So yeah, Lane’s relationship with Clark in Man of Steel may not click due to lack of chemistry, but Lane does share immense chemistry with the audience, who is put in the strange position of rooting for the hero’s girlfriend more then they root for the hero.

Unfortunately, Amy Adams’s funny, intelligent performance is just too little too late for a film that has nothing too specific wrong with it except that it’s dull and rudderless and wastes an exceptional cast. Man of Steel had so thoroughly lost me by the time Adams showed up that no amount of charm and drive from her – and she brings it, the MVP player on a losing team, like Lebron stuck in Cleveland – could salvage what I’d long expected would be a profound (or at least profoundly good) moviegoing experience. The film was neither of those things, but that middle act of the film, before all the smashing commences, where Lois tries to figure out what’s up with this inordinately handsome man who can cauterize her wounds with his eyes (and has extraordinary success doing so in spite of objections from her very pragmatic editor Perry White – she earns that Pulitzer), is some Grade-A world-building and character interaction that seems imported in from a much better superhero film. Not quite “Nolan Batman” level, but at least what we’d get from, say, Captain America.

Still, that last act would have needed a lot of stellar rationalization for all that Codex nonsense, and, in fact, for all of the conflicting messages young Clark gets as a confused, sheltered Superboy from a sympathetic but morally baffling Johnathan Kent, to ultimately make Man of Steel work. And so, while the flying and punching in Smallville and Metropolis is thrilling and a sometimes-pleasure to look at, its great crime is two-fold: yes it goes out of its way to make Superman seem as un-heroic as possible considering his nonchalance toward the high death-toll being nurtured by the collateral damage from his Kryptonian throwdown, which is attributable to his Zod-smashing laser-focus; it also fails to tie a thematic bow on a movie that develops its characters in fits and starts, if it develops them at all. This film needed a character-motivated final hour that could finally explain once and for all some of this film’s deep but meaningless psychobabble; instead it got a city-leveling UFC fight. In Man of Steel, a thoroughly charmless exploration of reluctant heroism, the Metropolis skyline goes through more dramatic change than Superman.

B-

After Earth

After Earth has flopped. Badly. Will Smith wanted to make a film expressing to the world, through thin sci-fi allegory, how difficult but also rewarding he finds it sending his son Jaden out there, alone, into the Hollywood star factory so that Jaden can make his own mistakes and learn from them and become his own man; while simultaneously providing Jaden a ready-made, pimped-out, famous-dad-featuring vehicle that ensured that his son would have to do none of those things. This is a film about Jaden Smith finding his own voice that, by it’s very existence, keeps Jaden from doing precisely that. No surprise, as a summer audience-pleaser, this didn’t work. Some are calling After Earth the worst film of all time. So Jaden may need to do some soul-searching on his own after all.

Look, I’ll go to bat for this film, at least a little. After Earth is nowhere near as entertaining as last year’s undeserving punching bag John Carter was, but it’s nowhere near being one of the worst films of all time either.

The marketing here was a perfect storm of failure – an unproven star, a blatant case of nepotism, a failed promise of lots of “your favorite movie star Will Smith,” and a director who is so many miles past “struggling” the studio basically refused to acknowledge his presence. Which is too bad because M. Night Shamalayan directs After Earth with a workmanlike flair and the film, apart from bad CGI, is atmospheric and attractive because of Shamalyan’s good eye.

Nepotism issues aside, the elder Smith is fine too, and he kind of makes After Earth worth it. The marketing overpromises him as a co-star, and it seems like a flagrant foul to sap Will Smith, one of the world’s most charismatic men, of all his charm, forcing him to play a fun sponge dad who condescends to his teenage son every chance he gets, but… and this is a big but… even stuck in a chair, speaking in a monotone, brows furrowed at the world around him, Will Smith is still a magnetic presence, commanding your attention and your sympathy.

This trait may not have been inherited by his son…

While Will keeps you glued to the screen even when he does nothing but bleed dramatically, Jaden has almost the exact opposite effect on an audience – no matter how much Jaden Smith does, and he does a lot, you can’t help but want to turn away from his panting, struggling, frail frame. It seems so mean to say, but it’s true – while Will magnetizes, Jaden repulses. It’s too soon to tell whether Jaden Smith completely lacks his father’s inherent charisma (or, put more simply, can’t act). Fact is, we should never have been offered an opportunity like this to discuss (and dis) his movie star chops. Most young people are done the favor of never being put on the world stage at 14, never offered up for so much scrutiny at so raw an age; and those that are, those child stars who find quick and enduring success, at least don’t have to live up to biggest-movie-star-on-the-planet dad, sitting in a nearby chair, scowling commandingly.

Will Smith, who conceived of this story and is a producer as well as a co-star, thinks he’s doing his son favors by providing him carte blanche to any blockbuster he wants and padding the stats with his box office sway (didn’t help here) rather than sending Jaden to some acting classes (and Will could afford some great acting classes). He’s not. This film’s main issue is that it begs the audience to see that charming “young Will Smith” glint in Jaden’s eye, and it doesn’t do this by letting him sparkle in a supporting role or by playing equally and romantically off a great female lead; After Earth puts Jaden Smith front and center, searching desperately for the gravity only a leading man can sustain (and not just any leading man, but a Smith!), and it never backs off, which is a big ask for just about anyone, and an impossibility for a middle schooler! Even young Will Smith was a seasoned musical and television and indie film performer before he was offered up to the masses as the next big cinematic thing.

And so, alas, that glint is never there. Jaden sulks and pants and panics and runs, and he even shoots off a “hip and cool” one-liner once or twice (just like Dad did in his movies with aliens), but he never does so without seeming like Shamalayan and dad are just off-screen telling him when to shake and when to shiver. And since 70% of After Earth seems like a particularly harsh grounding, it can never rise above what it is – not that bad.

D+